Spotify, OTT, The Rugby Channel and the Problem (?) of Peak TV

spotify logoIt's official: the newest outlet for TV series is Spotify, which today launched a slate of original programs that include both documentary-style shows about music and a Tim-Robbins produced mockumentary series set in the world of aspiring EDM superstars. It's further evidence that just about every online service with a sizable audience wants to get into the game of original content. But is that a good thing?

Industry pundits began kicking around the idea of "Peak TV" last year. It's a cautionary term meant to counter the idea that we're living in a new Golden Age of Television by questioning whether greater and greater quantities of quality TV shows can connect with enough viewers to recoup the cost of production.

FX Networks CEO John Landgraf is widely credited with starting the conversation at last year's Television Critics Association summer event, when he asserted that the production of scripted TV series had reached a breaking point. The issue, he said, was not only that it was difficult for viewers to locate worthy shows in the increasingly broad television landscape, but that it was becoming nearly impossible for broadcasters and OTT distributors to bring them successfully to market by building sizable audiences for each one.

"This is simply too much television," Landgraf said, according to The Hollywood Reporter. "My sense is that 2015 or 2016 will represent peak TV In America, and that we'll begin to see declines coming the year after that and beyond."

In a January follow-up with the Los Angeles Times, readers got a sense where at least some of Landgraf's frustation was coming from, when he admitted that FX viewership was down about 13 percent year over year — and called on Netflix to release viewership figures on its own shows. Netflix and Amazon have been tight-lipped when it comes to those numbers, enjoying the critical success of award-winning shows like Netflix's Orange Is the New Black and Amazon's Transparent but declining to specify how many people are watching.

It's easy to see why new players are entering the TV business despite the programming glut. Historically, a hit series — or at least a critical darling — has been a ticket to respectability for newcomers. The letters AMC originally stood for American Movie Classics, and that channel was little more than a Turner Classic Movies wannabe until a program called Mad Men vaulted it into the big leagues. And Amazon Prime was a retail discount club until Transparent put a hot social and political spotlight on the company's previously unloved video-streaming service.

Horace and Pete's

But things get especially interesting when you don't need a broadcast network or even an over-the-top service like Netflix to launch a TV show. Comedian Louis C.K. walked away from his FX series Louie in part to self-produce Horace and Pete, a 10-episode one-hour-plus scripted series that's shot like a multi-camera sitcom. The show is distributed via his own website (if you're enough of a fan of Louis C.K. to want to buy tickets to his performances, or download a $5 stand-up special, odds are you're already on the email list where he gets word out about new projects) for a small per-episode fee, or $31 for the whole series.

Louis C.K. being Louis C.K., he was able to convince real stars to join the cast — Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Alan Alda, Jessica Lange. But it's unclear how successful Horace and Pete was as a business venture. Last month, the comedian told Howard Stern that he hadn't made his money back and was in fact "millions of dollars in debt" after funding production. (It couldn't have helped that he kept dropping episodes on Saturdays, historically a slow night for TV-watching.) But that story changed, and he later claimed the show had made money thanks partly to tax incentives. "The tax rebate we're getting from New York State and the amount of sales we have so far have put the show in the black," he told The Hollywood Reporter as he mounted a "balls to the wall" Emmys campaign for the show.

At the Association of Moving Image Archivists' Digital Asset Symposium held in New York City last week, Paul D. Hamm, CEO of OTT video services platform Endavo, was trying to seduce attendees by promising that OTT represents a huge opportunity for content creators as well as anyone sitting on a massive archive of digital video. He noted that OTT distribution adds pay-per-view and/or subscription revenue potential to the traditional advertising model, allowing content owners to hedge their bets against a single strategy.

The Rugby Channel

"Content creators now have the opportunity, using OTT and similar models, to go direct to consumers, and that's a huge change from 10 to 15 years ago," he told attendees. "The business models are changing, and it's a very massive growth market that's starting to develop." He cited The Rugby Channel, which offers live streams, VOD content, archives, and stats to subscribers for a fee of $4.99/month or $49/year, as a niche success story.

So if we are living in an era of peak television, all these new purveyors of OTT content will have to do two things. One, they will have to keep costs down. That might seem obvious, but it's easy to lose sight of your budget if you're trying to "go Hollywood" in a meaningful way. Spotify seems to understand this; its episodes will top out at a mere 15 minutes each, which is one way to get value out of a production budget. And two, they will have to make use of a direct line to their target audience. Louis C.K. had that thanks to his email list, the Rugby Channel has a shot at developing it among American rugby fans who are woefully underserved by traditional sports broadcasting, and Spotify can take advantage of an existing worldwide subscriber based of nearly 30 million users, all of whom have at least a passing interest in music.

And if Spotify can get its users in the habit of watching music-related programming via the service, that opens up new avenues for additional revenue. For instance, it's possible the service could start getting musicians and record labels to finance their own promotional programming in exchange for space on the Spotify video channel, and Spotify exclusives could actually drive new subscriptions — imagine if fans had to have a Spotify subscription rather than an HBO subscription to check out Beyoncé's Twitter-melting Lemonade video album. That would have drawn some eyeballs and, maybe, driven some revenue.

But even if video programming eventually moves from traditional TV channels to an ever-expanding universe of OTT media purveyors, how many eyeballs are available? For a critical discussion of online viewership metrics, see this Gawker explainer, which argues that even wildly successful Internet videos to date have reached an audience that's a mere fraction of primetime viewership. And that brings us back to the real issue of Peak TV — the more fragmented the viewing audience becomes, the harder it is to monetize in a big way. As established companies like FX see their mindshare among TV viewers challenged by a multiplicity of online rivals, they might start to get an idea of how the big three TV networks felt in the 1980s, as widespread adoption of cable television eroded their strangehold on programming. Call it a programming glut or call it "peak TV," it's going to be hard to put that genie back in the bottle.

Now That’s a Changeup: MLB Network’s Offsite Infrastructure

MLB Network DIAMOND

One of the most daunting challenges in the media industry is media management for a major sports organization. Think about the amount of content flowing in on a daily basis during the season, when as many as 15 Major League Baseball games are being played on a given day — each of them defined by a series of pitches and at-bats that demand a wealth of metadata description — and then consider the archival requirements as every one of those pitches must be maintained for posterity and easy retrieval. And then consider that MLB Network is itself a broadcaster, with programming dedicated to baseball. Keeping that beast fed with up-to-the-minute sports stats and video highlights would be a challenge all by itself. MLB keeps up with a custom asset-management infrastructure it calls DIAMOND, a backronym for Digitized Industry Assets Managed Optimally for Networked Distribution.

DIAMOND has been around for a while, but it's only in the last few years that much of its infrastructure has been moved offsite to a data center near its Secaucus, NJ headquarters. How does it all work? Tab Butler, senior director of media management and post-production for MLB Network, spoke at the Association of Moving Image Archivists' Digital Asset Symposium, held this week in New York City. Here are some highlights from his talk.

1) What's the bottom line? MLB Networks currently cares for 650,000 hours of unique content. The total is expected to consume 50 PB of storage — mostly on tape but some on SANs (see below) — by the time of the MLB All-Star Game scheduled for July 12.

2) Where does it come from? The size of the archive grows every time an umpire yells "Play ball!" — and not just by the length of a game. Consider that each game is represented by a "clean feed" without graphics and a "dirty feed" with stats, a scoreboard, and more superimposed on screen. There may also be multiple dedicated feeds for ISO camera positions, including one or more dugout cameras. The standard minimum for a single game is seven feeds, but Butler said there could be as many as 10 or 11.

3) How fast is it growing? In 2010, Butler said, DIAMOND was managing some 2,000 hours of new footage a week. Does that sound like a lot? Well, over the next six years that number tripled — today, MLB Network brings in some 6,800 hours of video every week, Butler said.


Hours of Footage Added to MLB Network Storage Every Week

Year Hours/week
2010 2,000
2011 2,500
2012 2,900
2013 3,600
2014 4,200
2015 5,200
2016 6,800

Source: Tab Butler


4) How is it edited? MLB Network was forced to reconsider its editorial workflow in 2012, as Final Cut Pro 7 and Grass Valley's Aurora came to their end of life. "We looked at Avid and other platforms, but we needed it to couple very closely with DIAMOND," Butler said. Adobe Premiere Pro, with its panel integration capabilties, turned out to do the trick. As a result, editors can search for footage right inside Premiere, then drag the matching clips right onto the timeline. DIAMOND DASH (that's short for DIAMOND Asset Sequence Handler) works with the AP ENPS newsroom platform and Grass Valley's Stratus Rundown to identify the materials that are being edited and send the finished cuts directly to a playout server. "We need to know about everything on every timeline and in every sequence," Butler said.

5) What's the best interface for logging footage? MLB Network's 20 DIAMOND logging workstations had originally been designed using big buttons on touch-screens for tagging clips with metadata. Users would tap a "pitch" button to start each play, then touch buttons that corresponded to terms that described what happened during the play. However, experiments eventually confirmed that those systems were too slow. Today, MLB Network logs video with a mouse-and-keyboard system that is faster than the original touch interface.

6) How much storage is online? MLB Network has two 2.88 PB SANS, one for the National League and one for the American League. Each SAN runs on the Quantum StorNext 5.2.2 file system and can hold about 90,000 hours of footage  A special "virtual file display" has been created to display the files to users in a way that's easy to understand. "It's the only way to manage the size and scope" of the DIAMOND storage system, Butler said.

7) What moved offsite? The company designed its data center in 2012 and 2013 and had it up and running in 2014. Recording, online storage, editing workstations and DIAMOND infrastructure were moved to 28 racks of VMWare infrastructure at Coresite's nearby location. The data center is connected to MLB Network via two redundant fiber paths.

8) What stayed in the office? The studio playback system, the tape archive, and the editorial personnel all stayed at MLB Network HQ nearby. Editors have access to 84 Adobe Premiere Pro editing workstations running on Cisco UCS C240 2RU rack servers at the data center connected to MLB Network over a single dark fiber path. Each one drives two displays, a keyboard and a mouse over MultiDyne KVM hardware with "no visible delays," Butler said.

Off the Beaten Path: NAB Day Three

On Wednesday, I tried a step-tracking app on my phone to see how much I actually walked around NAB, and by the time I hit the shuttle bus for the ride back to the hotel, I was just under 4 miles. (Walking from the shuttle to my room put me over 4 mi).  In those 4 miles I still found some new and interesting products.

 Palette2 

1. Palettegear Palette — The most far-out thing I saw was a user-configurable control surface for Adobe Premiere Pro by Palettegear. It is made up of several audio faders, buttons and knobs that are held together magnetically. It allows you to pull it apart, almost like Lego, and put it together in any layout that works for you. It is very easy to set up, and it can sense your configuration. Very cool! Different systems start at $199.

DracoMagicQue

2. Draco Broadcast Magicue Prompter  —  One of the most difficult operations for a small crew can be coming up with someone to run a teleprompter. With a MagiCue prompter, using their app for iOS (and Android later this year), you don't need a teleprompter operator. Once you feed the script to the app, it listens to your talent, follows your script as they read it, auto-scrolling and pausing when they pause. Right now it is tuned for English, but other languages are coming soon. Pricing TBA.

Sennheiser mke 440

3. Sennheiser MKE 440 — This compact stereo microphone is unlike anything I've seen before. It has two short shotgun mic elements to pick up stereo audio in a single unit. It looks like a pair of pants. Street price is $350.

4.  Sennheiser Action Cam Mic — No model number or pricing was given, nor were photos allowed of this prototype that attaches to GoPro and other action cameras. I did get to hear samples of the audio from a GoPro on a bike and on a kayak, and this mic actually makes the audio from the GoPro usable for productions.

Atomos Flame

5. Atomos Shogun Flame — This is a seven-inch 10-bit AtomHDR 1500nit Field Monitor with 4K/HD 10-bit ProRes/DNxHR recording, Sony and Canon raw to ProRes/DNxHR recording, professional HDMI, SDI and XLR connections along with LTC/Genlock & bidirectional SDI/HDMI conversion needed on set and in broadcast. Their drive caddies are now compatible with G-Tech enclosures. MSRP: $1695.

AJA-Utap

6. AJA U-Tap HDMI and HD-SDI — These USB 3 capture devices come in HDMI and HD-SDI models. These units allow you to use them for video-capture applications and video conferencing using a wide range of pro and consumer cameras. Easy set-up does not require drivers and works on Windows, Mac and Linux, and can easily be moved from computer to computer as needed. MSRP $345

AJA Helo

7.  AJA HELO — This is a standalone recording and streaming H.264 USB and SD recording device.  It has HDMI, HD-SDI, and audio ins and outs. It can be configured before standalone use via the USB connector. It is very affordable at an MSRP of $1295.

IDX-cw1

8. IDX CW-1 — This compact transmitter and receiver set allows uncompressed transmission of 1920×1080 over up to 328 feet, line of sight. The transmitter plugs into an HDMI out on the camera and the receiver can go HDMI in to a switcher. It is the most affordable HD transmitter/receiver set I've seen at MSRP $700.

IDX-CW-3

9. IDX CW-3 — This compact transmitter and receiver set allows uncompressed transmission of 1920×1080 up to 380 feet, line of sight, and operates in the 5 GHz band that doesn't require a license. The transmitter uses the HD-SDI out on the camera and the receiver can go HD-SDI into a switcher. It is the most affordable HD-SDI transmitter / receiver set I've seen at MSRP $1300.

GoPuck

Gopuck-2

10.  Go Puck 6XR – This is a portable, lightweight, rechargeable 9000 mAh battery for extending the record time of action cams. It was designed by Blake Fuller to power cameras in NASCAR race cars — the first lithium-ion battery for starting race cars. It has two USB power outputs, one for 5v and one for 5v, 9v and 12v. It can also power and quick-charge a cell phone. MSRP $99.

Tomorrow is the last day of NAB, sniff sniff. While I'm not scheduled to make a report, I'll be walking the halls looking for new products to review. Please let me know which of the items I reported on you'd like to see in a full review.

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Off the Beaten Path: NAB Day Two

So Tuesday I was back wandering the halls of NAB.  I meant to start it at our Studio Prime Awards — but due to a stuck Coca-Cola semi blocking the shuttle bus exit I missed them. I started in the the front of South Hall at Blackmagic Design, then went to the back of Central Hall. Unofficially I refer to it as the knock-off pavilion, but even there, where a large percentage of items are cheap, reverse-engineered products, I found some original products to add to yesterday's standouts.

BMDduplicator [259232]

1. Blackmagic Design Duplicator 4K – This device has an H.265 encoder that can record to 25 SD card slots. It can be hooked up to the output of a camera or switcher during a live production and have 25 copies ready for distribution at the end of the event. The program signal can be looped through to an unlimited number of Duplicator 4K units to make an unlimited number of copies at one time. This unit works in real time only, and can not copy at faster-than-real-time seeds like USB data duplicators. MSRP $1995.

bmd-micro

2. Blackmagic Micro Converters – There are two models: HD-SDI to HDMI and HDMI to SDI. They are both one-way converters, but they are only $85 MSRP, so it is easy to afford a couple going in both directions, and they are tiny enough not to get in your way at one-third the size of their mini converters.

MatroxLCS [259229]

3.  Matrox Monarch LCS – This device will be of interest to educators and anyone who records a lot of lectures where Power Point-type presentations are used. It has two HDMI and one HD-SDI that can be switched between via software or buttons on the unit. Through the software control, you can set up the sources as full screen, side-by-side, or picture-in-picture, and cut between the different configurations. The unit can record to two USB sticks and one SD card slot. MSRP $2495.

ToughGaff [259227]

4.  Tough Gaff – If you've ever been on a film or TV set, no doubt you've seen a gaffer or production assistant running around, hands full, with a roll of gaffer tape hanging from their belt with rope or a carabiner, requiring two hands to rip off a piece — meaning they probably have to put something down to do it.  The “Tough Gaff” mounts as a holster on the gaffer's belt (a Tough Gaff belt is optional), comes in one- or two-inch widths and allows the tape to be ripped with one hand. I spoke to a few people on the show floor who thought it was great and were buying it for themselves and their crew. MSRP: One-inch, $25; two-inch, $30.

Tascam DR701D [259228]

5. Tascam DR-701D – This is a six-track recorder for use with DSLRs that includes four XLR microphone inputs, two built-in mics, timecode sync via HDMI for record start, timecode, and perfect clock reference to picture. This should speed up syncing of separate audio and video recordings by a lot.  Like other Tascam models, it offers a dual-record system at a lower level, in case your main tracks get overdriven. Street price $599

FL40Airlight [259230]

6. Intellytech FL-40 Airlight – This is a 10×10-inch flat and flexible bi-color (tungsten and daylight) LED light that is less than 1/4-inch thick. It produces 1950 lux at 3 feet. Its brightness and color are controlled via an included control module. The unit's flexibility allows it to be mounted in tight spaces such as cars, and it's light enough to be gaffer-taped to a ceiling. MSRP $499

AudioTechnica [259231]

7. Audio Technica System 10 – This is a digital microphone system that allows two systems to be used together in a configuration with two receivers stacked on the camera with a special mount. Using two systems, the mics can automatically sync with the receivers and keep from interfering with each other, at a moderate price. With an optional cable, the lav transmitter can also be plugged into line-level devices to get feeds from boards. Street price: Lav system, $449.95; handheld, $399.95.

8. Orca Alarm Bag – This equipment bag has a Wi-Fi connection to your smartphone. If someone moves it a settable distance from where you put it down, it will sound an alarm on your phone and give an idea where it is. No pricing yet.

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Off the Beaten Path: NAB Day One

While most NAB reports will take you to pretty much the same info on cameras and related gear or major NLE updates, I'm going to be looking at some of the things that generally not as “sexy” but important for you to know about if you are in the business of video production.  Here are the things I found interesting on NAB day 1.

LaCie 12 Big

1. LaCie 12 Big: This 12-bay RAID can be populated with up to 8 TB drives in each of the 12 bays for a total of 96 TB.  Is you are doing 4K resolutions and up, this will give you the space you need in a RAID 5 configuration.  While most of LaCie's Big product line only has Thunderbolt 3 ports, which are fine for many Macs, but only good on a few PCs, the 12 Big also offers a USB 3.1 port that features throughput of 400 MB per sec. While not as fast as Thunderbolt 3, it is still quite usable. It uses enterprise-class drives and includes a five-year warranty. It should be available sometime this summer; no MSRP as of yet.

Datavideo HS-1200

2. Datavideo HS-1200 video switcher: This is a six-input (four HD-SDI, two HDMI) switcher capable of 1080i and 720p video along with two XLR audio inputs. What sets it apart from other low-cost switchers is it includes everything in one package. Unlike other low-cost switchers, you do not need a PC to control it. It has a built-in control panel with real buttons and a T-Bar, and a multi-viewer LCD screen built in. It also features a chroma key, luma key, two HD-SDI outputs and an HDMI output. Expected to ship this June.  MSRP $3500.

Decimator MD-HX

3.  Decimator Design MD-HX: Mini HDMI/3G/HD/SD-SDI cross-converter with scaling and frame-rate conversion. What makes this converter different is it's bi-directional. Most of the others only go from HDMI to HD-SDI or HD-SDI to HDMI, but not both. The MD-HX not only converts both ways, it also can convert to and from most HD and SD frame sizes and frame rates, all for the price of a one-way converter without scaling: MSRP $295.

Azden SMX-30

4.  Azden SMX-30: Stereo/mono switchable video microphone with broadcast-quality sound, gain control, and low-cut filter. This mic has two completely different mic elements, a short shotgun and a stereo mic, so you can use which ever mic element is needed for the situation. It has a 20dB gain booster that is much cleaner than the gain circuit built into most DSLRs. MSRP $310.

HP ZBook Studio G3

5.  HP Z-Book Studio:  This version of HP's third-generation Z-Book has a number of enhancements. There is a return of the Dreamcolor display, now available in 4K in the 15-inch and 17-inch models. The processor offerings now include Intel Xeon M 1505 and (soon) 1535 CPUs, and an Nvidia Quadro M1000M GPU with 4 GB of RAM.  It's now available with two solid state Turbo Drives with up to 1 TB apiece. The power supply has also been shrunk from a two-pound brick to under a pound. Pricing starts at $1999.

Tune in tomorrow for NAB Day Two.

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